Heather du Plessis-Allan: Jacinda Ardern’s treatment of the Cook Islands is paternalism


For more than a week it went it largely unnoticed that the Cook Islands’ Prime Minister had defiantly declared he was opening his border to New Zealand.

Mark Brown came to New Zealand last week hoping to secure from Jacinda Ardern a date for the Cooks’ travel bubble. He didn’t get that. Instead, he got told it might happen in the month of May. Maybe.

So, clearly frustrated, he made the announcement on TVNZ’s Breakfast last Thursday that the Cooks will be “open for business” on May 1 regardless of whether there is an agreed travel bubble in place.

Brown’s frustration appears to be that he wants to open to New Zealand travellers, but Ardern won’t let him. The New Zealand Government is concerned we might export Covid to the Cooks. They’re concerned the Cook Island health system may not cope. Fresh in their minds will be the measles we exported to Samoa in 2019 that killed more than 80, many of them children.

But the Cook Islands Government disagrees. They believe they’re ready. They’ve upgraded Rarotonga Hospital, established a 32-bed Covid ward and set up two negative pressure rooms with 10 beds to treat critically ill Covid patients. If you regard those 10 beds as Covid intensive care beds, then they have a Covid ICU bed for every 1500 Cook Islanders. At last count in New Zealand, we have one ICU bed per 9058 Kiwis.

Brown’s pressing concern is the economic damage of continued border closures. He says the country is losing 300 workers a month, many of them to New Zealand. He says that’s the equivalent of us losing 25,000 a month to Australia.

Also, the Cooks are losing a million dollars a day in revenue and GDP is down 20 per cent.Our GDP is down 2.9 per cent by comparison. We have no concept of the hit they’re taking.

Brown is right to be worried. The impact of losing that many workers and that much income is massive and will be felt for generations. We understand economic scarring in New Zealand. We’re still dealing with the inequality and intergenerational welfare dependency the economic reforms of the 1980s created.

However, Brown may end up backing down on his defiant border opening. Practically, it’s not going to work. How many Kiwi tourists will fly to Rarotonga for a holiday if Ardern still forces them into a two-week MIQ stay on their way home? Diplomatically, Brown needs New Zealand too much to defy Ardern. He has already publicly stated his hope that New Zealand will help pay his country’s massive wage subsidy bill.

It’s possible New Zealand wants the Cooks’ population vaccinated before allowing a bubble. That could be done relatively quickly. The resident population is small: only 15,000 odd. We could deploy our defence force to jab en masse. But our Government’s apparently talking about May for those jabs, and if you factor in the three-week wait between dose one and two, it could well be the end of May or even later before Brown is allowed to open his borders.

It is deeply uncomfortable that Mark Brown needs to ask Jacinda Ardern for permission like this.

New Zealand really should reconsider whether it is our government’s place to instruct another government on what they can and can’t do with their borders.

Cook Islands Chamber of Commerce President Fletcher Melvin says New Zealand needs to start treating the Cook Islanders like adults. He’s right. He’s also polite. If he wanted to he could accuse New Zealand of paternalism.

Paternalism is an ugly concept we’ve long decried, having witnessed the damage it did throughout the British Empire, when colonisers treated indigenous peoples like naive children who needed instructing.

But paternalism is what is unfolding here: one group imposing restrictions on another, against their will, stemming from an attitude of superiority. We think we know what’s best for them. We might not.

The Cook Island’s Prime Minister is an adult, elected by his country to run his country. He must weigh up the risk of Covid-19 against the risk to his economy. He must decide if the country is equipped to mop up any outbreaks. It’s not our place to question his capacity to make those calls.

For his and his country’s sake, here’s hoping he gets that travel going and soon.

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